Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].


Integral Studies and Academia

Barriers and Gateways

Jeff Meyerhoff

Paper presented at the Integral Theory Conference in 2010. Revised 2015.


Integral Studies is at the margins of academia. In order for it to survive and thrive as a mode of knowledge, integral studies will have to, at the very least, be considered worthy of mainstream academic debate. The barriers to becoming worthy of debate are great, but there are currents within academia that are heading in an integral direction and could, if joined, be a gateway to greater legitimacy. The difficulties that the leading integral theorist, Ken Wilber, would face were he to be considered by academics is offered as an instructive example. I describe some barriers for integral studies to academic entry and suggest some gateways to academic consideration.

The Need for Academic Validation

Given the limited social locations for a mode of knowledge, academia is the primary social location for integral studies.

To survive and thrive a mode of knowledge needs a social location. A social location is a place within society where individuals and groups who enact that knowledge make a living and have, by their very hold on that location, their mode of knowledge validated. The premier location for types of knowledge to get validation and for practitioners to be paid is academia (Weingart 2010, 13).

Modes of knowledge can survive in other locations. Astrology continues outside academia through its interpretive and predictive service to consumers. Psychoanalysis survives partly in academia and partly in quasi-academic and practice-oriented institutes. Think tanks are non-academic locations where knowledge creators can be paid for knowledge production, but the knowledge produced is often linked to the political and economic agenda of the funders of the think tank. Ken Wilber's integral theory was poised to receive this kind of economic boost in the late 1990s when internet money was pledged to it, but this faded with the collapse of the internet bubble. Given the limited social locations for a mode of knowledge, academia is the primary social location for integral studies.

Academia is also a natural social location for integral studies because the majority of integral synthesizers use academic knowledge to build and validate their theories. Integral studies is mostly an integration of academic knowledge from the natural and social sciences, and the humanities. Some integral theories also incorporate non-academic knowledge from various mystical and esoteric traditions, but the bulk of the knowledge is derived from academia.

Academic validation would give integral studies the social location in which to exist, increase its power to persuade, be adopted by more people, perpetuate itself and so have a greater effect on the world. For these reasons academic validation is crucial to integral studies existence and furtherance. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, its most energetic champion, was aiming for just that kind of recognition (Esbjörn-Hargens 2010a).

Two leading proponents of integral studies, Esbjörn-Hargens and Mark Forman, contend that integral studies has made some “academic emergence” (Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens 2010). While it's true, as they say, that there are individuals associated with academia who practice or are sympathetic to integral studies, and that they have done yeoman's work assembling some of the traditional academic structures necessary for academic acceptance—peer-reviewed journal, biennial conference, relationship with an academic press—I don't presently see any mainstream academic institutional establishment for integral studies. I agree with them that “Integral Theory has not yet achieved nearly the penetration into academic circles that it could” (although we'd disagree on whether “it could”) (27).

Two Types of Validation

To be regarded as knowledge a theory requires attention to two intertwined aspects of the process of validation. One aspect is the epistemological in which what is deemed knowledge is that which meets the reigning criteria of knowledge such as being representative of the way the world is, having empirical support, being coherent, fitting in with other knowledge, being elegant, and/or having predictive value. The other aspect of validation as knowledge is social and is dependent upon the relevant knowledge community's evaluation. To be deemed knowledge a theory or fact must be accepted by (enough of) the relevant knowledge-conferring community to be regarded as knowledge. This view sees knowledge as a social status. Which of these two is thought to be the final arbiter of knowledge is important for how a prospective piece of knowledge will try to gain consideration as a knowledge-contender and to ultimately be granted the status “knowledge”, but both aspects must be engaged in order for a prospective piece of knowledge to be deemed “knowledge.”

Those who give epistemological validity primacy acknowledge the role that the social group that evaluates epistemological claims plays, but believe that, in the end, it is that which is true—by one or more of the various criteria of truth—which will become knowledge. So, for example, it is thought that it is the way things really are which will ultimately determine how the knowledge judgers judge what is and is not knowledge. The knowledge-judgers or social aspect is acknowledged, but it is not thought to be the final arbiter regarding what is and is not knowledge.

The other, social, approach views knowledge as ultimately a social status attained by some knowledge contenders because a community with the power to grant validation has deemed it knowledge. They use the criteria relevant to their knowledge conferring community to do this, but ultimately what they say goes, and it goes because they say so. Here the social aspect is the final arbiter of knowledge as in some pragmatic conceptions of knowledge construction.

Integral Theory and Academia

The true guiding criterion for inclusion in Wilber's theory appears to be the usefulness of an academic source for “validating” a pre-determined form that the theory is to take.

An occurrence of this dichotomy in knowledge determination occurs in the Integral Theory of the leading practitioner of integral studies, Ken Wilber. Wilber's Integral Theory attempts to validate itself using the theories and facts sanctioned by academia. The problems with his theory relative to academia are instructive if future integral studies attempt to gain academic acceptance.

In the mid-1990s Ken Wilber touted orienting generalizations as the method he would use to build and validate his integral theory. Orienting generalizations were purported to be the culled, “already-agreed-upon” (Wilber 1995, ix) truths of academia. Wilber claimed that in each field of study the members of that academic community, while debating their contested issues, shared certain background knowledge which was accepted and therefore validated by that inquiring community. Wilber contended that he would build his integral theory out of that accepted knowledge. The validity came from the relevant academic (and some non-academic) community's agreement on the orienting generalizations. For example, in developmental psychology there is a healthy debate on many issues but, Wilber contended, all the participants to those debates accepted the basic Piagetian framework of a four stage individual cognitive development. Wilber would take such agreed upon knowledge to build his theory.

Wilber's more recent formulation of his theory in the 2000s, has dispensed with the concept of orienting generalizations (it doesn't even appear in the index of Integral Spirituality (Wilber 2006a)), but he has not dispensed with the integral model he says gains it's validity from the orienting generalizations. Instead his most recent Integral Methodological Pluralism “uses at least 8 different methodologies” (Wilber 2006). While still retaining his basic four quadrant model and its evolutionary-developmental content which gained its validation from the orienting generalizations of academia, Wilber has now expanded the quadrants by two, asserting eight basic divisions or hori-zones. So whereas previously he had a quadrant which represented the interior of individual entities or holons and so was examined—for humans—by developmental psychology, he now says this interior aspect of entities has two aspects itself, an inside and an outside and two corresponding methodologies that examine them. The inside aspect of the individual interior or human subjectivity as seen from the subject's perspective is investigated by methodologies that adopt that stance such as phenomenology or meditation practices. The outside aspect of the interior of an individual is examined by methodologies such as developmental psychology or cognitive science which offer an outside or more objective investigation and representation of the contents of our interiors.

For each of the now doubled quadrants there is an inside and outside aspect and a corresponding set of methodologies—mostly academic—which are appropriate to their investigation. Such a classificatory scheme is helpful, but it does not tell us how the results of the various methodologies will be mediated and integrated when, especially in the social sciences and humanities, there are profound disagreements within methodological approaches, not to mention the even more profound disagreements between methodological approaches.

If the methodology of the orienting generalizations has been dropped it's not clear now how the structure of Wilber's integral theoretical model from the 1990s is justified. The more recent Integral Methodological Pluralism does a different job than the earlier orienting generalizations, offering basic perspectival divisions and the academic methodologies that examine them.

While the methodology of the orienting generalizations appears to have been dropped, Wilber has retained from the mid-90s his three strands of any valid knowledge quest. The view of the relevant inquiring community is crucially determining in Wilber's three steps (or strands) of any valid knowledge quest. First are the instructions on how to inquire: “look in that microscope,” “concentrate on your breath,” “collect soil samples.” Second, by following the instructions in step one the inquirer receives a perception or result. And third, the inquirer brings his or her perceptions or results to the relevant community—those who have inquired in that way and received their results—and see how that community judges the results. So the view of the relevant community, being the final arbiter, is crucial to determining validity.

Bald Ambition

As I demonstrate in my study of his work (Meyerhoff 2010), in most of the major subject areas that Wilber uses to construct his theory he does not validate his assertions with the consensus view in academia as he claims. Instead he uses a mix of academic sources which have varying degrees of acceptance: well-accepted and relevant in their domain, highly contested, out-of-date or so new as to not be accepted in academia. The true guiding criterion for inclusion in Wilber's theory appears to be the usefulness of an academic source for “validating” a pre-determined form that the theory is to take: evolutionary-developmental movement toward greater complexity through greater transcendence and inclusion. Given this problematic use of sources, academia's lack of consideration of Wilber's work is understandable. Mark Edwards, a leading integral practitioner, has noted this lack of methodological rigor and has argued for its correction (2008)

Barriers to Academic Entry

There is also the problem of—borrowing a term from economics—the “barriers to entry” of a theory into academia. These barriers currently are high for integral studies for several reasons.

Specialization vs. Integration

Specialization is a pervasive condition of academia. Integral thinking, by its nature, is a response and corrective to specialization, sometimes pejoratively called “fragmentation.” Academic inquirers focus narrowly on one aspect of knowledge which results in highly specialized journals and small groups of academics who follow that specialty. Integral studies stands in stark contrast to this pervasive trend. Even to claim that one can accomplish an integration of academia's highly specialized knowledge would be prima facie suspect to most academics. This suspicion is separate from, but may mask, a psychological resistance from specialized academics who do not think their area of research can be responsibly integrated into a grand scheme.

Beyond the prima facie suspicion would be the legitimate question of how an integral synthesis integrated a given specialist's subject area? Integralist's will have to know the subject areas they are incorporating into their theory well in order to follow the criterion of good scholarship and not leave themselves open to quick scholarly dismissal. My analysis of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory is an example of the difficulties that an integral theory would encounter if the claims of supporting academic research were evaluated.

A cautionary example for integralists of the difficulties of overcoming specialization and the differences among academics can be found in the two-century-long effort by sociologists to create a large-scale integration of their fragmented and contradictory field. In Camic and Joas (2004) the authors note that “Since its inception nearly two centuries ago, sociology has been partly an effort to overcome intellectual fragmentation.”(1) They note the efforts of the great names in sociology—Comte, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, Park and Parsons—to create a “coherent enterprise” and conclude that “It was indicative of the social and intellectual challenges that this aspiration for unity would face, however, that its original proponents and their successors rarely agreed on much beyond the goal itself.”(1) And their conclusion regarding current efforts is similarly pessimistic: “For, agreed though many contemporary sociologists are that a coming synthesis will put an end to intellectual fragmentation, consensus on what this synthesis is or should be is still lacking”(4). Here, we're just speaking of one field in the diverse area of the social sciences, and an integration of its theory and subject-matter has not stemmed its “centrifugal tendencies toward intellectual fragmentation.”(5).

The Spiritual Dimension

An important element in most integral models is the incorporation of a spiritual or transcendent dimension. Wilber, Andrew Smith, Aurobindo, Telhard de Chardin and others incorporate spiritual advancement either as an endpoint of their models or as an immanent motive force propelling the evolutionary process. It's hard to think of an aspect of existence that runs more directly counter to the central thrust of post-Enlightenment Western science with its, sometimes fierce, anti-religious, anti-spiritual anti-mystical secularism, and its supreme goal of explaining all existent phenomena in purely naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, terms.

One way around this difference is the formulation of an empirical and phenomenological description of spiritual practices and outcomes which does not involve any supernatural entities, instead, solely describing spiritual advance in terms of (the farther reaches of) human development. Still, even if we don't consider the prejudice against spirituality and mysticism due to academic ignorance, there are the legitimate intellectual questions of how to demonstrate and verify transpersonal experiences and dimensions (Smith 2008a).


A related area of human experience which presents lesser but still difficult problems of acceptance and inclusion is the integration into an academically acceptable model of the phenomenon and development of consciousness. Unlike spirituality or a transpersonal dimension, consciousness studies is a growing academic field being investigated in the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, neuroscience and history. The difficulty here will be the way in which consciousness is incorporated given the difficulty in defining what it is, who has it and the view of it as a subjective, rather than objective, phenomenon. Ken Wilber boldly allots one half of his AQAL model to the interior dimensions of individual and social experience, although it appears more a classificatory juxtaposition and less the longed-for integration of mind and matter. Andrew Smith's behaviorally-oriented criterion of determining levels of consciousness is one approach that could provide an empirical and objective way of describing the existence of, what we might agree to call, consciousness (Smith 2008).

Integrating the Human and Natural Sciences

The desire to attribute a unique kind of consciousness to humans creates one major division between the two kinds of science which must be integrated to create a truly integral theory. The division between the natural and the social or human sciences and the debate about whether there is, and what constitutes, that division is long-standing. Some try to eliminate the division by conceptualizing humans and their societies without the subjective attributes of intention and choice, seeing humans as another animal or as a system. But those, like Wilber, who want a truly integral theory would need to find some room for the folk psychological language of '”intending,” “willing,” “believing” and “imagining” that still is used in the social sciences and is fundamental to our self-image.

The difficulty can be summarily stated as: either a natural scientific or systems-oriented language is used for all phenomena including humans with the concurrent loss of the folk psychological language and texture of human experiencing or we retain the latter and have difficulty integrating it with the objectivizing, natural scientific language that has been so successful in describing physical, chemical and biological phenomena.

For example, astrophysicist Eric Chaisson's (2006) story of everything from big bang to human society uses as its criterion of increasing complexity a mathematical formula which ranks level of complexity according to amount of energy used by the system in question. According to this method, humans' high energy use relative to size makes them most complex, but this method of determining level of complexity neglects the subjective aspects of human beings which some of us think is what is distinctive and important about us.

In contrast, Ken Wilber has a prominent place for the subjective, developmental processes of human individuals and societies, but does not have a neutral mathematical criterion for assigning levels of complexity. The differences between the natural and social scientific vocabularies—explanatory vs. hermeneutic, objective vs. subjective—remain and he instead juxtapose these different aspects of the differing sciences. It's left to appliers of his Integral Theory to mediate the differences in scientific vocabularies.

The difficulty of integrating differing theoretical vocabularies even occurs within the social sciences themselves. In economics, Wolff and Resnick (1987) note that it's not just that the two approaches of neo-classical and Marxian economics understand economic phenomena in different ways, but that the two approaches theorize, and so see, different phenomena.

Basic objects in one theory exist as secondary objects or are altogether absent in the other. Self-interest-maximizing individuals are as scarce in Marxian theory as surplus labor is in neoclassical theory. Qualifications that are central to Marxian theory—productive, unproductive, relative and absolute—do not figure significantly, if as all, in neoclassical theory. Likewise, the adjectives “dependent” versus “independent,” which neoclassical theory attaches to its objects, do not exist in Marxian theory. (17)

The vocabulary used constructs the world seen. The terminological choices of any perspective are laden with its construction of “reality,”, and the value-laden vision of what a human being is and can hope to be. This is part of the reason even supposedly disinterested academics fight strenuously for the rightness of their chosen approach. Wilber's perspectival turn and his concept of enactment tries to incorporate this theory-ladeness of the objects of inquiry, but if two or more approaches to a single area of inquiry actually have different objects of inquiry and the choice of perspective is value-laden, it's hard to see how their differences can be mediated and the differing approaches integrated.


In most integral models the means of integration chosen determines the character of the diachronic or temporal aspect of the model, for example, evolution from simplicity to complexity. Tricky issues regarding the fact/value distinction arise. Are we describing something that factually occurs in nature or are we selecting one of many patterns or trends for value-laden reasons? And does the selection of a value-laden means of diachronic integration necessarily result in a direction to history? Is a direction to the change over time necessary to an integral theory? Integral theories generally try to understand evolution as heading in a particular direction even though this runs counter to the anti-teleological thrust of the dominant Neo-Darwinian Synthesis.

Integral approaches give the temporal unfolding of entities a direction. A direction is different from a description or explanation of how what was past led to what is present. A direction asserts that there is, inherent in the process of unfolding, a destination or tendency to become more one way rather than another. The dominant Neo-Darwinian Synthesis asserts that the evolutionary unfolding of organisms has no destination. Living things simply adapt better or worse to the given environment and flourish or not; simple organisms can flourish as well as complex ones depending on the environment (Mayr 2001).

In contrast, the common unifying concept and means of describing an unfolding directionality used in integral studies is complexity. Complexity provides a norm for organizing the vast subject matter integral studies addresses both synchronically/ vertically/ hierarchically and diachronically/ horizontally/ developmentally. Talk of directionality in nature or society and the use of complexity have made some inroads in academia, but in general academics are loath to speak in those terms. Ken Wilber is explicit about his intention to create a meaningful story out of the evolution of everything.

A more critical relationship to the organizing principle of complexity occurs in the field of “big history.” Found in the discipline of history and developed in the late 1980s big history tries to write the history of everything from the big bang to the present. While also a gateway to academia to be discussed further below, its leading practitioner, David Christian (2004), acknowledges the anthropocentric nature of the use of complexity in his work: “our history of the universe has concentrated on one obscure planet orbiting one obscure star simply because that planet happens to be our home” (108).

As mentioned above, Eric Chaisson (2001) uses a mathematical formula to determine degree of complexity. Simply put, he tries to measure the amount of energy moving through whatever system is being considered. Those systems that use more energy relative to their mass to perpetuate themselves are more complex. Chaisson argues that this provides a criterion for organizing all existent things from the big bang at the start of everything through to the arising of humans in the present day. This attempt at a mathematical criterion of complexity is important for gaining greater measurability and possibly greater academic attention and agreement. But there are difficulties with Chaisson's formula.

Fred Spier, a practitioner of big history, has evaluated Chaisson's approach and believes it's “fair enough as a first-order approach” but notes that “a great many complications emerge on closer inspection” (Spier, 2010, 35). For example, according to Chaisson's criteria of increasing complexity birds are more complex than humans. These “complications” would have to be resolved if complexity were to justify itself as a criterion of evolutionary advance, assuming we want to make sure humans come out on top.

We'll see in the next section that complexity as a trend and a mechanism can be argued for in an academically respectable way, but here it and other attempts to assert directionality in nature are highly problematic and create a strong barrier to entry for integral studies.

Gateways to Academic Entry

While there are strong barriers to entry for integral studies entering academia, there are areas in academia that could be used by integralists to give their work more legitimacy. If integralists allied themselves with these areas which already have some academic legitimacy they could serve as a bridge for integral studies to gain some academic consideration.

Evolution Towards Complexity

As described above, the directionality of most integral approaches is very problematic for academic acceptance. According to the prevailing view in the natural sciences, nature has no intended destination, it isn't set up to create anything specific; it unfolds according to patterns, laws and chance. According to cosmologists, our universe may be heading toward a cold, dead, highly entropic expanse or be part of a multiverse or be one of many baby universes. In evolutionary biology The Modern Synthesis asserts that the organisms that survive are those that adapt best to the environments they are born into. Nature doesn't favor the complex over the simple, although specific environments may.

In contrast to this belief in inherent overall directionlessness, integral theories assert that things are heading somewhere, usually toward the creation of humans. What's needed to aid academic acceptance is work done in the academy that can lend some support to this directionality.

Daniel McShea is one of the foremost evolutionary biologists seeking a measurable way of showing that increasing complexity is (or is not) a tendency and a process in the evolution of life. His work on the question of increasing complexity defined as “internal variance” argues a trend in that direction (McShea 2005). He and Robert Brandon have gone so far as to propose “biology's first law,” modeled on Newton's first law of motion (McShea and Brandon 2010). Aside from any other constraints—such as natural selection—variation tends to increase over time. Further, he and Jonathan Marcot (Marcot and McShea 2007) have tested whether there is a bias in favor of the increase of “nested hierarchies,” a type of complexity, that should be of interest to integralists since it's an empirical test of the idea that there is a bias in nature toward producing holarchy. For this type of complexity, “these results suggest that no strong tendency exists for hierarchical complexity to increase.”(82)

McShea's work is the kind of academic research, published in preeminent scientific journals, yet open to alternative views (he's connected to the Santa Fe Institute), that integral thinkers should engage.

Big History

Ken Wilber has referred to his work as a “history of everything” (Wilber 1996). A different way of writing the history of everything has gained a small foothold in the field of history and been named by its practitioners “big history.” Founded in the late 1980s by history professors, David Christian and John Mears, it attempts to tell the story of everything from the big bang to the present day. It began as an undergraduate class which used experts in the major disciplines to explain how we got from the origin of the universe to modern-day societies. The field has grown since then; Christian published the major text in the field, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, in 2004. In the recently published The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today, Fred Spier (2010) describes his work as:

A first attempt at formulating a coherent theoretical framework for big history. This approach may actually constitute an entire interdisciplinary research agenda that, if pursued, would allow scientists ranging from astronomers to historians and anthropologists to collaborate in unprecedented ways while speaking the same scientific language. (39)

Allying with big history would be helpful to integral studies although the traditional integral concerns with spirituality, subjectivity, personal growth and a strong sense of humans as the leading edge of evolution is not shared with big history historians.


A minor, but established, tradition within academia has sought to critically examine and remedy the specialization and impermeability of academic disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinarity is a broad term describing the rethinking of the academic divisions of knowledge intended to produce new, more unified and more useful knowledge. Released in 2010, and ten years in the making, The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity is a symbol of academic legitimacy, represents an attempt to bring order to a diverse approach and shows the many areas that interdisciplinary researchers examine. Interdisciplinarity historicizes the strongly bounded academic disciplines noting that their seemingly sturdy divisions are historically recent. Some hearken back to the vision of a more unified knowledge while others question academic divisions in order to leave a space for new knowledges to be developed. The general critique of academic specialization is similar to integral studies, but the ambitions of interdisciplinarity are more limited. A linkage to interdisciplinarity would increase integral studies academic legitimacy but also provide a useful caution: if interdisciplinarity is seen as a fundamental challenge to standard academic practice with its more modest goals, it gives an indication of how outside standard academic norms is the much more ambitious integral project.

Interdisciplinarity, as a fledgling discipline, has followed a similar path to institutionalization as integral studies, even sharing a similar name. Its Association of Integrative Studies and its annual conference were founded in 1979, and its journal, Issues in Integrative Studies, appeared in 1982.

The New Science

Concepts central to integral studies such as complexity, emergence and self-organization are debated by small but significant academic communities. These three concepts are central to most integral understandings such as Jantsch (1980), Laszlo (1987), and Wilber (1995). They present both a barrier and a gateway for entry to academia. They are a barrier because they arise from an alternative scientific tradition that has its roots in the unsuccessful systems theory of the 1950s (Hammond 2003). But they offer an opportunity since there is a solid minority in academia pursuing the conceptual descendants of this alternative perspective. If its influence were to increase—perhaps even accomplishing a paradigm shift—integral's alliance with it would increase integral's chances of establishing itself in academia.

As described above, integralists use the concept of complexity to give directionality to natural and social processes and to place humans at the leading edge of evolution. Mainstream science's criticism of teleology makes this a problematic barrier to entry. But complexity is also used by Integralists as part of their focus on hierarchical (or holarchical) systems in order to integrate and understand the relationships between parts and wholes and so counter the reductionism seen as dominant in conventional science.

This inquiry into complexity as a non-directional, synchronic, phenomena can be distinguished from complexity as a diachronic tendency evolving over time. Both are of interest to the integralist because the synchronic aspect is non-reductionistic and requries systemic thinking, but the diachronic aspect causes more of a difficulty because the directionality that the integralist wants to identify in evolution is dependent on not just the physical fact that some phenomena are more complex than others, but a further argument about the tendency towards increasing complexity over time. The synchronic aspect of complexity is much more commonly investigated, with several journals devoted to it.

Like complexity, emergence allows talk of the integrity of higher, more complex levels and does not direct one to reduce, take apart, and analyze in the sense of divide into more and more elemental units. Emergence as a counter to reduction allows for a scientific way of maintaining the integrated nature of phenomena. It is debated by established academics and is presently part of the academic dialogue (Clayton and Davies 2006). The concept of emergence is problematic, however, because currently it seems to be a placeholder for processes that are not scientifically explainable.

The concept of self-organization is appealing to some because it provides a self-propulsive or autonomous creative and self-maintaining process that arises from within the entity studied in contrast to the mechanistically causal, inner deadness of a billiard ball universe that is wholly determined and seems to negate free will. Like emergence, to which it is connected, self-organization is a flourishing part of the academic discussion.

While the attempt to use these relatively new concepts must, for academic acceptance, meet the prevailing criteria of natural scientific investigation: prediction, experimentation, mathematicization, explanatory usefulness, elegance, and agreement with other results, their appeal for some has to do with the alternative view of the composition of the physical and life worlds that they offer. They appeal intuitively because they seem to offer the hope of a revivified, or re-enchanted (in Weber's sense) world.

There's a great deal of both academic and popular literature on the new sciences (Mitchell 2009). The Santa Fe Institute is the best-known institution focusing on complexity, emergence and self-organization. There are also explicit attempts to link the understandings that arise from the new sciences to issues of religion and spirituality (Clayton and Davies 2006; Gregersen 2003). But this is still alternative science and integral studies dependence on it means that its success or failure is linked to this loose movement's attempt to remake traditional science.


In the previous section I used the standard criticisms of scientific reductionism one reads in integral and other sources. This is the idea that science undermines the reality and integrity of the fields of study beyond physics by anticipating the eventual reduction of all inquiry to the next most basic level of reality—the social sciences to biology, biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics—ending with the physical constituents of the universe. But Steven Horst (2007) argues that this description of reductionism is outmoded in the philosophy of science and rarely occurs in the practice of science itself. Understanding science as reductionistic is a holdover of an image of science popular fifty to sixty years ago, although it continues to live, his critique shows, anachronistically in the contemporary philosophy of mind, where assumptions about the primacy of the brain for consciousness still reign. He proposes a “Cognitive Pluralism” for the philosophies of science and mind that emphasizes the role of cognition in fashioning various irreducible representational systems. While this contradicts Wilber's emphasis on reductionism as the bête noire of integral knowledge, it is part of a larger trend in academia toward pluralism and a perspectival understanding of knowledge creation which is a part of Wilber's Integral Theory.

More broadly, the inherently pluralistic nature of integral studies places it well-within the prominent academic turn toward pluralism. Pluralism is currently a common topic in philosophy, political science, religious studies and social theory.

Ken Wilber has pursued the implications of this pluralism with his theoretical engagement with perspectivism and the concept of enactment. More fully than the Wilber of the mid-90s, the current Wilber has incorporated the implications of his developmental model and integrated within it the understanding that new individual and collective developments in cognition and consciousness mean that new objects of inquiry will be brought into existence. The progressive development of the observer will co-construct new worlds. There are intricate philosophical and psychological issues and difficulties with this conception, but it is just the kind of challenging thinking that requires sifting and has been a part of the postmodern or post-analytic pluralistic turn in the humanities.


As a fledgling theoretical orientation integral studies needs to survive and thrive. New theoretical orientations survive and thrive by being championed by individuals and social groups. These individuals and social groups must have social locations that allow them to develop the theory they champion. The social location they acquire will affect their degree of epistemological legitimacy. Integral studies use predominantly academic knowledge and hope to integrate it. In order to gain epistemological legitimacy integral studies needs to be considered worthy of academic discussion. If it doesn't, its prospects for survival outside academia, while not nonexistent, are limited, especially for a conceptualization with pretensions to organizing academic knowledge.

Two approaches to how validation occurs are the epistemological and the social. The epistemological understanding sees knowledge as a result of a knowledge-candidate meeting the criteria of truth relevant to that candidate. The social understanding sees knowledge as a social status which knowledge-candidates gain by being accepted as knowledge by the society's knowledge-designating authorities.

Ken Wilber's Integral Theory combines these two modes of knowledge validation, but asserts that acceptance by the relevant knowledge community ultimately prevails. The validation of his Integral Theory using this standard is unsuccessful. As it stands it could not overcome academia's tough “barriers to entry” for new knowledge claims. Some of the common claims in integral studies such as: the critique of specialization, the importance of spirituality, a role for consciousness and subjectivity, the need to integrate all the sciences, and that there is an overarching direction to evolution, will pose challenges for the acceptance of integral approaches. Gateways to academic entry are researches supportive of an integral perspective that, if allied with, could be increase integral's academic acceptance. Examples include: research in evolutionary biology on measuring complexity, interdisciplinarity, big history, the new sciences of complexity, and the large academic trend toward pluralism.


Camic, C. and H. Joas. 2004. "The dialogical turn." In The dialogical turn: New roles for sociology in the postdisciplinary age, (Eds.) C. Camic and H. Joas, 1-19. Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chaisson, E. 2001. Cosmic evolution: The rise of complexity in nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

————. 2006. Epic of evolution: Seven ages of the cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.

Christian, D. 2004. Maps of time: An introduction to big history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clayton, P. and P. Davies (Eds.) 2006. The re-emergence of emergence: The emergentist hypothesis from science to religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, M. 2008. Where's the method to our integral madness? An outline of an integral meta-studies, Journal of Integral Theory and Practice 3(2): 165-94.

Esbjörn-Hargens, S. (Ed.) 2010. Integral theory in action: Applied, theoretical, and constructive perspectives on the AQAL model. Albany: State University of New York Press.

————. 2010a. "Introduction: Integral theory in action." In Integral theory in action: Applied, theoretical, and constructive perspectives on the AQAL model, 1-22. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Forman, M. and S. Esbjörn-Hargens. 2010. "Prologue: The academic emergence of integral theory reflections on and clarifications of the 1st biennial integral theory conference." In Integral theory in action: Applied, theoretical, and constructive perspectives on the AQAL model, (Ed.) S. Esbjörn-Hargens, 23-31. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Frodeman, R., J. Thompson Klein, and C. Mitcham (Eds.) 2010. The oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gregerson, N. (Ed.). 2003. From complexity to life: On the emergence of life and meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, D. 2003. The science of synthesis: Exploring the social implications of general systems theory. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Horst, S. 2007. Beyond reduction: Philosophy of mind and post-reductionist philosophy of science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jantsch, E. 1980. The self-organizing universe: Scientific and human implications of the emerging paradigm of evolution. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Laszlo, E. 1987. Evolution: The grand synthesis. Boston: New Science Library.

Marcot, J. and D. McShea, 2007. Increasing hierarchical complexity throughout the history of life: Phylogenetic tests of trend mechanisms. Paleobiology, 33(2): 182–200.

Mayr, E. 2001. What evolution is. New York: Basic Books.

McShea, D. 2005. A universal generative tendency toward increased organismal complexity. In Variation, eds. B. Hallgrimsson and B. Hall, 435-453. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.

————. and R. Brandon. 2010. Biology's first law: The tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, M. 2009. Complexity: A guided tour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A. P. 2008. The dimensions of experience: A natural history of consciousness. Xlibris Corporation.

————. 2008a. The unverifiable truth. In The dimensions of experience: A natural history of consciousness, 292-331. Xlibris Corporation.

Spier, F. 2010. Big history and the future of humanity, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Weingart, P. 2010. A short history of knowledge formations. In The oxford handbook of Interdisciplinarity, (Eds.) Frodeman, R., J. Thompson Klein, and C. Mitcham New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilber, K. 1995. Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

————. 1996. A brief history of everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

————. 2006, June 8. "What we are, that we see. Part I: Response to some recent criticism in a wild west fashion." Retrieved June 10, 2006 from

————. 2006a. Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston: Integral Books.

Wolff, R. and S. Resnick. 1987. Economics: Marxian versus neoclassical. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Comment Form is loading comments...